In 2004 Green Day released their multi-platinum selling rock-opera American Idiot. It’s the band’s second best-selling album after the 1994’s major label debut Dookie. The album is both loved and hated and put them back in the mainstream after years of commercial flops. The album won a Grammy and inspired a Broadway musical, which will also be made into a screen version. The album is known for its socio-political imagery and has been said to capture the zeitgeist of Bush-era America.
I think the rock opera format is interesting as it gives an album a dramaturgic or narrative angle as a whole, and many bands and artists have tried it. Most notable are probably David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, Queensryche’s Operation Mindcrime*, Rush’s 2112, Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage, Pink Floyd’s The Wall and The Who’s Tommy and Quadrophenia. A problem with the format is that it often gets way too pretentious and overly pompous, and often lose the original spirit of rock n’ roll. Sometimes the overly ambitious story might sabotage the songwriting. Done well, however, rock operas can be great and make the listener appreciate a story in addition to the music.
*Operation Mindcrime might be more of a concept album than a rock opera.
Back to American idiot.
Is American Idiot a political rock opera? Is it even a rock opera? I’m not going to look too much into the latter at the moment, but it could probably be questioned. I feel like we should take this quote with a grain of salt, being from a Green Day fan-page, but I’ll include it anyway: “2004 was a year of conflicting views(sic) and political statements. Green Day were adding their on self-certified speech to a declining nation. Creating a product of retaliation, unearthing a fresh new source of backlash from a country swamped in scrutiny. As a band of authority, Green Day weren’t lying down to big ego’s (sic) or presentential(sic) stronghold. A feature so potent in American Idiots underskin. Green Day disapproved of their government(sic), and a catalogue fuled(sic) in profound belief(sic) and superioty(sic) would change a Country and a band forever. « I would say that there is no doubt that songs like the title track and “Holiday” are political statements. Vocalist Billie Joe utters as he introduces the song in Milton Keynes 2005: “This song is not Anti-American, It’s Anti-war!!!!!”. The legendary, merciless music reviewer Robert Christgau views war as one of the issues that the album references (“War (Not any special war, just war”). Christgau later goes on to say about the whole album: “There’s no economics, no race, hardly any compassion». “ and he’s right. In my opinion neither “American idiot” (The song) nor “Holiday” offer any real ideas and are both just random political musings and half-baked statements (“I don’t want to be an American idiot” and often trying really hard to offend (“Zieg Heil to the president gasman”/”Subliminal mind fuck America”). The songs are also quite detached from the actual story in the rock opera and to me seems a bit misplaced on the album as a whole.
Outside of the politics, I think a lot of the songs are a bit weak and depends too much on obvious theft. Quite a few songs border on plagiarism. I would also say it’s quite an overrated album. The songs that are great are, however, really great, “Whatshername” is a perfect ender and really makes a perfect finish to the actual story as well as being an incredibly beautiful song. It starts “I thought I ran into you down on the street/ Then it turned out to only be a dream”. The Whatsername character, as seen in a dream by the protagonist of the story, brings on the entire story and the entire album would not make sense if it weren’t for the song. In that regard it also starts with the end.
The actual story is also pretty good and might hold up better than the music does. Even if the story also borrows a lot from the Who’s rock opera: Quadrophenia. Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong even made a joke or a prediction that they were going to make a rock opera about a guy named Jimmy, an obvious reference to the Who, in an interview from 1993, before they had even made it into the mainstream. The huge difference is that Jimmy is the main protagonist of Quadrophenia and St. Jimmy is one of the other characters in American Idiot. I’m not much of a fan of Quadrophenia as an album, but it’s actually one of my favorite movies. The title is a play on the word “Schizophrenia”, meaning splitting of the mind and bases on the misconception that it means split personality, ”Quadrophenia” means in the rock opera that Jimmy’s mind is split in four. The connection is that it’s often assumed that St. Jimmy is just a part of the main protagonist in American Idiot also known as “The Jesus of Suburbia”’s(Taken from “The Buddha of Suburbia”) split personality. Still St. Jimmy seems even more destructive than Jimmy, and in the “Jesus of Suburbia” music video he resembles a Sid Vicious (Sex Pistols member) inspired character, making him some sort of Punk Rock version of the troubled Mod. In Quadrophenia, Jimmy drives his Vespa off a cliff into the ocean, while in the Green Day song “Homecoming”: “Jimmy died today, he blew his brains out into the bay” and the Jesus character continues, “In the state of mind/ It’s my own private suicide”. This connection is maybe my favorite part of American Idiot. Later in the song, the Jimmy character is gone and “Jesus is filling out paper work now”. Jesus has now gotten a job and left the life behind him and daydreams of something better.
The reason Jesus seem to move on is that the girl he is in love with sends him a letter bomb saying that nobody likes him and she certainly doesn’t seem to either. The girl is Whatsername from the song with the same name. It’s uncertain whether he actually refers to her as Whatsername when they are together or if that’s how he refers to her in retrospect, it is said that they all call her “ol’ Whatsername”(“She’s a Rebel”), but in the song “Whatsername”, he claims to have forgotten her actually name and forgotten all about her, yet seeing her in a dream makes the basis for the entire story told. Outside of “Whatsername”, “She’s a Rebel”, “Extraordinary Girl”, “Letter Bomb” and “Homecoming” are all about her, it seems. “She’s a Rebel” and “Extraordinary Girl” shows Jesus/Jimmy’s love or fascination for her as a person and a fighter for her beliefs, while “Letter Bomb” and “Homecoming” are about her leaving him. “She’s a Rebel” is also the song where the imagery of the album cover comes from “She’s holding on my heart like a hand grenade”. In “Letter Bomb”, she seems to be the one to tell him “You’re not the Jesus of Suburbia/ St. Jimmy is a figment of/ your father’s rage and your mother’s love”, establishing once again that St. Jimmy really doesn’t exist.
I definitely think that the story between the split personality or identity crisis ridden character and Whatsername is a far more interesting angle than the political aspect, which is slim, if it exists at all. Still as far as politics and social commentary goes, if we can distinguish a difference there, I would say that the rock opera (especially in songs like “Jesus of Suburbia” and “Letter bomb” which discuss divorce, drug use and commercialism) are much more of a comment on the situation, thus captures the spirit of the times in the Bush-era America than it offers any ideological points or solution to the observed issues. That being said, the reason it captures this particular time is because it was released in it, the war in “Holiday” as Christgau mentioned is not talking about a specific war, and unless we are relating “idiot” to George W. Bush, I wouldn’t say there is actually that much to go on if one is to claim the album is restricted to take place in the Bush-era. I think, it being an opera and all, the album would be more interesting if it had a libretto (a book attached to the album), but then again that might ruin the imagination the songs themselves produce. I think maybe the most positive part of the rock opera is that it actually does tell a story, and a pretty good, relatable story too!, unlike so many other rock operas, including American Idiot’s successor 21st Century Breakdown, where it’s unclear there even is a story. In spite of my slight negativity when it comes the album, I’m actually going to see the musical in Stockholm! So I’m looking forward to that.
Thank you so much for the insightful article on American Idiot, and for being our guest lecturer. I hope we’ll see more of your stellar work again sometime.